Mentally Ill Police Encounters and Potentially Deadly Consequences

We just witnessed in NYC the deadly consequences of an allegedly mentally-ill young man who killed two police officers under the probable delusion that he was taking revenge for the Michael Brown (Ferguson Mo.) and Eric Garner (Staten Island, N.Y.) cases. The NYC killer who was in and out of the criminal justice system in several states was never diagnosed with mental illness and not treated but known as mentally ill by his family.

Increasing confrontations between the mentally ill and police reflect a continuing failure of state and local mental health providers. Lack of funding for mental health services frequently causes the police to be mental health crisis workers. Yet, very few police agencies have trained staff to fulfill this role. Further, the lack of police and even jail linkages with mental health agencies is telling. It has been estimated that nearly 50 percent of the nearly 500 police killings a year are of mentally ill individuals, most, though not all posing no immediate threat to the police or others.

It is difficult to project numbers of encounters in which the mentally ill attack police because no systematic data is collected. Research on violence by the mentally ill suggests the most likely targets are friends or family. (The NYC killer actually attacked his girlfriend in Baltimore before coming to NYC to ambush the police officers.) Why the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn't keep this type of data is surprising since it seems to keep data on almost everything. The federal government responds selectively to these issues that make national attention, but the attention doesn't often last long and funding for any new programs are often limited and of short term duration.

It would be helpful if the federal government could take an ongoing leadership role that would bring together criminal justice agencies, mental health providers and consumers and family members for continuing discussions that might suggest new directions. Optimism may well not be justified. But to do nothing is not an option.